Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

A3. Foreign Trade

It is of importance to the study of the Hanseatic confederation to remember that the settlements made by the German merchants in their various foreign and distant ports, though permanent in themselves, were inhabited almost exclusively by a floating and ever-changing population. True, the traders who had done good business in this spot would return season after season. But they did not form an established colony, they did not take up their permanent abode abroad, and hence the connection with their native towns was never broken; they remained ever in touch with home. Now the pettiest trader of one of the German cities enjoyed in the Steelyard in London, in the St. Peter's Court of Novgorod, in the factory of Bergen, in the church of Wisby, and many other places, a measure of personal freedom, a number of privileges such as were frequently absolutely denied him in his fatherland, or doled out grudgingly by his territorial lord.

When the merchants had first appeared abroad they were protected more or less by their suzerains. Thus Barbarossa had given them the assistance of his strong name, and extorted for them certain important privileges from the King of England. The same holds good with regard to the Duke of Saxony. But as the emperors grew to care less and less for purely German affairs, as the Saxon ducal power was broken, as the German-speaking lands became the camp of anarchy, confusion, and lordlessness, where rightful and unlawful sovereigns quarrelled with each other, where ruler fought ruler, noble robbed noble, where, in short, the game of "devil take the hindmost" was long played with great energy, the towns that had silently and gradually been acquiring much independent strength, perceived that if they would save their prosperity, nay, their very existence, they must take up a firm position against the prevailing social conditions.

Founded upon trade, with trade as their vital element, it was natural that traders also should have a mighty voice in the councils of these towns. The councillors indeed were chosen chiefly from among the leading merchants, most of whom had been abroad at some time or other of their career, and tasted the sweets of wider liberty. None of these were insensible to the pressure put upon them by their returning fellow citizens that they should struggle in their common interests to maintain a position of strength at home, a position which could not fail to increase the security of their settlements abroad. For owing to this long period of political chaos, the merchants abroad noticed or fancied that the name of the Holy Roman Empire no longer carried the same weight as formerly; that to threaten those who overstepped their licenses towards them with the empire's power had ceased to have any serious effect. Yet unless there was some real power at their back, how, at this lawless time, could the Germans feel sure that the treaties they had made with the aliens would be upheld? Well then, urged the foreign traders, what our emperors cannot or will not do for us, busy as they are with Italian matters, or with self-destruction, we must do for ourselves.

And quietly, unobtrusively, but very securely, they formed among themselves that mutual offensive and defensive alliance of whose exact date and origin we are ignorant, but of whose great power in later times the world was to stand in awe and admiration. The purpose of the union was to uphold the respect for the German name abroad by a strong association of cities willing and able, if need were, to enforce its demands by force of arms.

Mutual protection, moreover, was needed as much, if not more, at home. The highroads, never too safe from plundering barons, had grown yet less so during the lawless and fighting period that followed the fall of the Hohenstauffen dynasty. These, too, must be guarded, or how could merchandize be brought from place to place. Peace and security of property, being the very corner-stones of commerce, did the merchant seek above all to secure, and since nothing in this life can be obtained without a struggle, these cities had to fight hard, not only with moral force, but often with the sword, in order to extort from their rulers these elementary rights of civilization.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Thus the Hansa from its earliest origin, though organized for the ends of peace, was from its commencement and throughout its existence a militant body, ever watchful to punish infringement of its rights, ever ready to extend its authority, ever prompt to draw the sword, or send forth its ships against offenders.

It is indeed a significant fact, that never once in the whole course of its history did it draw the sword aggressively, or against its own members. In its domestic disputes it never needed to exercise other than moral pressure. But the cities as they grew in power almost assumed the proportions of small democracies, and it is well-known that democracies, save for purposes of self-defence, are not so ready to rush into wars as monarchies. War is the pastime of kings and statesmen; of men who have nothing to lose, and perchance much to gain in this pursuit; of men who do not stake life and limb, health and home and trade. The wars waged by the Hansa were never in one single instance aggressive. Like all confederations, whose life nerve is commerce, the Hansa ever sought to avoid war, and only seized the sword as ultima ratio. It is noteworthy that its ships were designated in its acts as "peace ships" (Friedenschiffe), and even the forts it built for protection were described as "peace burgs" (Friedeburgen).

The germ of manly independence once awakened in the burghers grew apace, and as they felt the benefits of this new spirit they learnt that with it they could cow their would-be despotic lordlings, and exact from them respect and even aid. Cologne was the first among the older cities to emancipate itself. It is hard for us to realize the enslavement of the middle class in former days. For example, a merchant might not wear arms, no luxury, but an absolute necessity in those wild times. Frederick Barbarossa permitted him to carry a sword, but in order that there might be no confusion of social castes, he decreed that "the travelling merchant shall not gird his sword, but attach it to his saddle, or lay it on his cart, so that he may not wound the innocent, but yet may protect himself against robbers." The inference in this clause, that only a member of the third estate would be likely to hurt an innocent person, is amusing in its naivete. As for the peasant, if he were found with arms upon him, a lance or a sword, he had to suffer severe punishment. The knightly weapon was broken across the back of any serf who dared to carry it.

A further instance of want of personal liberty in Barbarossa's days is shown by his contempt for commerce and for the trader's knowledge of the commercial value of his goods. Thus he decreed that a merchant selling his wares in camp must offer them at the price fixed by the field-marshal, and if the owner asked more than was deemed just by this functionary, who probably knew as much of the value of goods as his trusty lance, he lost not only his market rights and his wares, but was whipped into the bargain, his head shorn and his cheek branded with a red-hot iron. At home his choice of dwelling-houses, of trade, even of marriage was interfered with. Is it astonishing, then, that with so little personal liberty at home, so much abroad, the townsmen aspired to change this state of things, and aided by political events did change them, and rapidly too?

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Nor was it only the merchants returning from abroad who stirred the legitimate longings of their stay-at-home brethren. A liberating influence came from yet another side; from that very land of Italy, for whose sake the German rulers had suffered their own country to endure neglect. Travelling Italian merchants on their road to Flanders passed through Central Germany, and as they halted in the cities they would recount in the long evenings those travellers' tales eagerly listened to in days when reading for the most part was an unknown accomplishment, and when all information was acquired by ear.

". . . I spoke of most disastrous chances;

Of moving accidents by flood and field;

. . . .

And portance in my travel's history:

Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle;

Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven

It was my hint to speak."

These Lombards told of the prosperity of their cities and the liberties they enjoyed, narrations that sounded like fairy tales in the ears of the Northmen. And when the Crusades broke out, and many of them saw with their own eyes the glories of the southern cities, when German merchants who had followed in the train of the emperor's Roman campaign returned, confirming all they had heard from the Italians about commercial liberties and privileges, their determination not to be left behind was strengthened.

Freiburg (Free City) was the first town founded as the outcome of the new liberty, an enlightened prince lending his help and means to that end.

Further individual aid was given to the new idea of personal liberty for all conditions of men by an apostle of freedom, Arnold of Brescia. This eloquent pupil of the French monk Abelard, the enlightened philosopher, the lover of Heloise, himself a priest, was the most powerful opponent of the clerical ideas in the twelfth century, which tried to keep down the people in order that through their ignorance and dependence they might be ruled with absolute and unquestioned sway—ideas by no means wholly extinct to this day among this class of men. Banished by the Pope as a political and ecclesiastical heretic, Arnold fled to Southern Germany, where he preached his doctrines to eager ears, and roused an enthusiasm that laid the train for a later Church reformation, and helped towards the development of a new social state. He awakened or fostered the thought of personal liberty, a liberty not only consistent with corporate union, but part and parcel of the same; a condition alone worthy a rational human being, who, while doing whatever pleases him best, never loses sight of the fact that he has only a right to follow this desire so long as his liberty does not trench upon that of his neighbour and brother man.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


John Stuart Mill had not yet defined the meaning of the much abused term, liberty; Madame Roland had not yet ejaculated upon the scaffold her true and piteous cry, "Liberty! what crimes are committed in thy name!" but Arnold of Brescia understood the meaning of the word, and what was equally important, he made his hearers understand it too. He did not merely preach vague doctrines, he preached sound political economy and social ethics.

And thus the Germans learnt from the Italians both the true meaning of liberty and the virtue of municipal institutions, which latter had, in the first instance, sprung up in Lombardy from a Germanic root; its essential features being a free choice of the civic rulers from the fittest elements, a right to govern themselves, and if need be to form alliances, and the right to tax themselves. Further, they learnt to recognize the principle that the final decision should not rest with one person, but with the mass of the inhabitants. This autonomy in all inner affairs, founded on Italian models, became in the course of several generations the most cherished possession of all those German cities whence sprang the Hanseatic League. There was, however, this difference that, unlike the Lombard cities, the Germans ever acknowledged the supremacy of the emperor, and never developed either into complete oligarchies or democracies, though in their statutes when they were at the height of their power, it was distinctly stated that decisions in important matters did not rest "with the general council, but with the people."

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


In the thirteenth century municipal privileges grew and extended, for though the townsfolk were supposed only to elect their own magistrates under the sanction of the bailiffs of their respective territorial lords, these functionaries, who generally lived in a strong castle within the city or just upon its walls, became only too ready to be bribed into compliance with the burgher will as the distresses of the empire caused their lords to require more and more of the hard cash and other solid assistance which the rapid progress of the cities in wealth could furnish. Of course circumstances were not the same in all places. In many there was open warfare between the lordlings and the townsmen, and many a sacked and gutted castle remained to testify to the successes of the third estate.

As the baronial strongholds were razed, the towns built up on their sites strong citadels, walls, and moats, which they defended by a burgher militia hardened to fatigue, brave, determined; who not only dared to face the resentment of the barons, but often extorted from them by force what they could not up to that date buy from them or obtain as a meed of justice. It was no infrequent event in the thirteenth century for a town to be besieged by its territorial lord; and these sieges, like that of Troy, would last many years, for the art of reducing strong places was but little developed, and wars, even if they lasted longer, were less terribly destructive than in our day.

The cities, having the wealth, were most frequently the victors, and it would even come about that as terms of peace their enemy would hire himself out to his vassals as the legal and bound defender of his own subjects, for a stated number of years. Further, the cities often bought from these princelings the lands outside their walls; the forests, mines, brine springs, even the highroads and streams, thus drawing into their power anything that might assist in diminishing the danger from all that could impede their commerce. They would also ask the cession of villages, of tolls; next the right to coin money. In a word, they made use of every means that came in their way, in accordance with local and momentary circumstances, to extend and consolidate their power.

What wonder that the burghers feeling their strength and seeing the weakness of the empire turned its dissensions and disorders to profit, and began to make among themselves, quietly and unostentatiously, alliances for maintaining peace in their immediate vicinities, for keeping the roads cleared of robbers, for opposing the black mail levied by their feudal lords, and anything else that offended against "the common freedom of the merchant."

Curiously enough such alliances were in direct contravention of the existing laws of the German Empire. At the Diet held in Worms, 1231, the princes had expressed marked disapproval of such leagues, in which they clearly recognized a dangerous rival power. But the cities seemed little troubled by this interdict. They, on their part, recognized that the time had come for a firm union, and adhesion of the weak against the strong, and more and more, as they saw that the empire threatened from within and from without was visibly falling asunder. For what respect could be felt for a crown which was at last actually put up for sale to the highest bidder, and acquired by the rich but otherwise impotent brother of the English Henry III., Duke Richard of Cornwall?

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


The towns of the Rhine were the first to form themselves into an alliance, a fact that can scarcely surprise us when we remember how thickly set is that lovely river with the now ruined strongholds of what erst were robber lords. And the Baltic towns were not slow to follow in their wake, forming a League "for the benefit of the common merchant." These cities even settled the contingent which each town had to place at their common disposal, a great stone of possible stumbling being skilfully avoided by a phrase which occurs in a contract of 1296: "If the fight goes against a prince who is lord of one of the cities, this city shall not furnish men, but only give money." The Rhenish section alone was able to put into the field some eleven hundred crossbowmen and six hundred stout galleys; no mean army in those days.

In a word, the times were out of joint, and the people had to help themselves, and did so. Sprung from modest sources, having its origin in true neighbourly feeling, what was at first a mere association of merchants had developed into an association of cities. The banner under which they had grouped themselves bore the device "freedom for the common merchant at home and abroad," and this device became the elastic but durable bond, which, keeping them together, made them a mighty power. Its very elasticity was the cause of its strength, giving it that facility of expansion and freedom from rigidity which in more modern times has made the glory and the might of England, whose constitution is distinguished by a like principle of flexibility.

A naive North German chronicler of the thirteenth century telling of the various alliances formed, writes: "But the matter did not please the princes, knights, and robbers, especially not those who for ever put forth their hands for booty; they said it was shameful that merchants should rule over high-born and noble men." Undaunted, however, by such objections, the cities continued to form alliances, to make contracts among themselves until these contracts assumed the extent, dignity, and importance of those made by the towns with their foreign settlements.

Thus, by slow degrees, cautiously, but very surely, the Hanseatic League took its origin, and thus it grew until it became an independent popular force, a state within a state. Like everything that the Christian Middle Ages called into life, the Vehmgericht (Vehmic Tribunal), Gothic architecture, the knightly orders, it bore strongly the impress of individuality.

The origin of the name of Hansa is wrapped in some mystery. The word is found in Ulfila's Gothic translation of the Bible, as signifying a society, a union of men, particularly in the sense of combatants. He applies it to the band of men who came to capture Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Later on Hansa occurs as a tax on commercial transactions, and also as the sum, a very low one, which the various cities paid as their entrance fee into the association.

But our League did not yet officially bear that title; it acquired it from the date of its first great war with Waldemar of Denmark and the peace of Stralsund (1370). Then it won name and rank at the point of the sword, and after this it came to be classed among the most redoubted powers of the period, being thus by no means the first, and probably not the last, example of the lift given to civilization by so barbarous a thing as the powder cart.